If Donald Trump says it, it must be wrong. If Ben Carson agrees with him, doubly so. Add Sen. Ted Cruz's endorsement, and you have nothing short of apparent mathematical certainty that the matter at hand, so decisively pronounced upon by this Triumvirate of Republican Dunces, must be other than what they assert. Especially when President Obama, waving a moralizing finger at them, takes a position antithetical to theirs.
Yet the above assumption may be -- I stress may be -- incorrect, or at the very least, insufficiently considered in the case I'm about to discuss: that of the United States' response to the dilemma presented by the influx into the West of hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees, about half of whom come from, or claim to come from, Syria. After chiding Republicans for not wanting to accept asylum-seeking "widows" and "three-year-old orphans," or worse, preferring "only Christians," as "contrary to American values," Obama announced plans, notwithstanding the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, to accept 10,000 Syrians next year, with deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes affirming that they will be subject to a "robust vetting procedure."
Ten thousand is hardly a drop in the bucket in view of the 4.2 million Syrians dispersed elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East. Yet Cruz has called Obama's plan "nothing short of lunacy." Trump has promised, if elected, to send them back, warning that ISIS may have infiltrated militants into their ranks, thereby effectuating "one of the great tactical ploys of all time." Carson likened such militants to "mad dogs." Former Gov. Mike Huckabee tossed in his two bits (which happens to just about equate with his poll ratings), and declared that the United States should outright reject any refugees from countries "where there is a strong presence of ISIS or Al-Qaeda." Hillary eventually weighed in, opining that barring the entry of these Syrians would "undermine who we are as Americans."
It has long been known that Syria's killing fields are affording some of the world's most zealous Islamists -- including those possessing European passports -- with battlefield training they put to use against the "infidel" populations of their home countries. Sure enough, after the terrorist assaults of November 13 in Paris, it emerged that two of the assailants had registered as Syrian refugees upon arrival in Greece earlier in the year, with others traveling back and forth from Syria, apparently unhindered, thanks to Europe's poorly policed borders and disorganized intelligence services. Though at least one call has issued from liberal quarters to invite a million Syrian refugees to our shores, a measure of sobriety has begun to tinge the debate, with some leading Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, expressing reservations.
But the Syrian refugee crisis should not have been the wildly partisan issue it became. Caution is in order. We need to discuss the matter on its merits, politics aside.
Consider these additional points. Most Syrian refugees are fleeing not ISIS, but bombardment by the Assad regime that ISIS is striving to overthrow. A poll conducted a year ago found that 13 percent of Syrian refugees in the Middle East had a positive or somewhat positive opinion of ISIS. This should not be surprising. A renowned 2013 Pew Research Center survey that canvassed much of the Islamic world disclosed the extremely illiberal views (on apostasy, women's rights and Sharia, among other things) prevalent across the Middle East in particular; it did not include Syria, of course, but there is no reason to believe that that country would have offered results much different from those of its neighbors.
I mention this latter survey only so we understand the possible conflict between values espoused as a matter of course in Muslim countries -- values that may conflict with the secularism and gender equality that rational folk cherish, for instance. This is no reason not to accept Syrian refugees, however. People can change. But we should not assume that because we show them largesse in accepting them, they will gratefully renounce hardline convictions deriving from their religious faith.
None of the general data cited above should be interpreted as evidence against the admission of individual Syrian refugees, but it should be taken into account in any discussion of the subject, and would tend to dispose one to the conclusion that, at the very least, fighting-age males should continue to be rejected in favor of women and children. Yet women and even children have been both victims and perpetrators of terrorist violence in Syria and elsewhere. Again, caution has to be the rule.
This brings us to the much-ballyhooed vetting process. If nothing else, it is lengthy (18 to 24 months) and has been in place for years, with only about half those scrutinized finally admitted. But questions nevertheless arise. Given the lack of data from Syria, just what sort of background checks can really be made? Will vetters forthrightly query asylum candidates regarding their views on ISIS or Al-Qaida? Assuming that no Torquemada-style interrogations will take place, how will investigators ferret out those intent on hiding their Islamism? And what about the potential for radicalization? Believers in supernatural dogma of all sorts accept, without a shred of objective evidence, comprehensive propositions about the universe, our place in it, and how we should relate to one another. The problem we face now, with Islam, is the alarming degree to which a significant number of Muslims, both in immigrant communities in the West and in Islamic countries, move from "moderate" to "fundamentalist." The roots of radicalization lie in the Islamic canon, which contains no trigger warnings indicating "radical" material.
Reform in Islam remains a highly contentious topic. The neuroscientist and "New Atheist" Sam Harris and the former Egyptian fundamentalist Maajid Nawaz are contributing to the start of this process. But it is only a start.
What of those seemingly impolitic suggestions that we accept only Christian Syrians? Well, not to favor one group of faith-addled folks over another, but exactly how many Jesus-freak "Jihadi Johns" have we seen beheading American journalists? How many Syrian Christians have even so much as suggested burning a Quran (remember that pastor in Florida?), let alone advocated slitting the throats of their religious rivals? At least as far as security goes, accepting Christian Syrian refugees hardly seems like a bad idea. In fact, it seems like a no-brainer.
Over the past year and a half, authorities have arrested at least 66 Muslims (including refugees) in the United States on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks or supporting ISIS, so clearly, our much-touted vetting procedures leave something to be desired. (Not all were from immigrant communities; four out of 10 were converts to Islam.) If we accept Muslim Syrian asylum seekers, what sort of "margin of error" would be acceptable? What if, say, 13 percent (per the poll mentioned above) of the 10,000 Syrians President Obama hopes to admit prove to be ISIS sympathizers? That would be 1,300 people. Earlier in the year, FBI director James Comey warned of the possibly "thousands" of ISIS supporters already in the United States, which means that "increasingly ... the needles" in the haystack "are invisible to us." We've already got these folks on the potential warpath. Is it prudent to add more to their ranks? If we do, we should not delude ourselves about the risks.
To obviate all these problems, why not consider seeking out atheist Syrian asylum seekers, few though they may be? (We have no definitive stats, but there surely are some.) Why pride ourselves on welcoming confessional diversity, when the existence of any sort of confession indicates a predisposition to believe wildly nonsensical propositions on the basis of no evidence whatsoever? Why not affirm our Enlightenment roots and, for the first time, announce we wish to shelter nonbelievers?
As long as President Obama keeps insisting that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, and that even the suggestion amounts to "an ugly lie," the discourse we need to have about the the Syrian refugee question and the faith of a majority of them will founder, prey to all sorts of political gamesmanship and crass demagoguery.
At the very least, we owe the nonbelieving cohort of displaced Syrians the chance to come to our shores and begin their lives anew. They might just help return us to the Enlightenment principles on which the United States was founded.
And they might also help teach Messieurs Trump, Carson, Cruz and even President Obama a thing or two about the evil inherent in religious faith.
After all, they know it firsthand.